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Author says book pulled from Utah schools was written to help prevent sex abuse

Canyons School District offices are pictured in Sandy on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.
Canyons School District offices are pictured in Sandy on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Sonya Sones, author of "The Opposite of Innocent," said she was "saddened and disturbed" when she learned this week that a book she wrote was removed from four high school libraries in Salt Lake County.

Although the book has sexual content, it was written in response to Sones' experiences and she hoped it would have a positive effect on teenagers who are in situations of abuse.

"The Opposite of Innocent" is one of nine books that was removed by Canyons School District officials from high school libraries after a Sandy woman sent an email expressing concerns about the books' content.

The main character of Sones' book is a 14-year-old who thinks she is in love with an older man who is a friend of her parents. Later in the book, the character realizes she is being sexually abused and gets out of the situation. Sones said she felt the need to write this book because her older sister went through similar experiences.

The hope, Sones said, is that the book would help young people realize when they might be getting groomed by a predator so they could escape the situation before any actual abuse occurred, and have an example of a character who was able to get out of such a situation. She said she also wrote the book to teach readers that they need to be careful.

Sones said writing the book was a "painful experience." But she has had multiple people reach out to her and let her know that her book helped them in situations of sexual abuse, because they were able to see how the character in the book put an end to the abuse, and figure out how to take action themselves.

"Even one response like that was enough to make the work worthwhile, honestly," she said.

Although she thinks her book is helpful for young people, Sones said she respects a parent's right to say that their child should not read the book. What she doesn't agree with is a parent trying to keep other people's children in the community from having access to a book.

"I can understand the desire for a parent to want to protect their child, but the best possible thing would be is if the parent and child both read the book and read it together and then had a discussion about what they felt when they read it and how they could work together to make sure something like that doesn't happen to the child," she said.

Although Sones does not know whether "The Opposite of Innocent" has been pulled or banned from other libraries, she is not new to conversations about book banning. A book that she wrote in 2001 titled "What My Mother Doesn't Know" was on the list of top 10 most banned books in 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2011. Its presence in libraries was contested because of sexual content as well.

Because of that book, Sones was on the list of most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century.

"I really love that distinction, mostly because it gives me a chance to talk about why people shouldn't ban books in schools," she said.

When there are more conversations about whether a book should be banned, there is more interest in the book and more people are able to find the book, and possibly benefit from it, she added.

One of the issues Sones and others have regarding the removal of the books from Alta, Brighton, Corner Canyon and Jordan high schools was the process, which some say did not match the district's policies for addressing concerns about library books. Sones said that typically when a book is questioned, it starts a process that involves a lot of discussions between administration at the school, the community, and students and people are able to learn.

"It becomes a great discussion that the whole community benefits from because it gets them thinking about this," Sones said.

Utah library groups respond

Three Utah library groups — the Utah Educational Library Media Association, Utah Library Association and Utah Library Media Supervisors — issued a statement Friday saying that they strongly believe in the protection of free speech in the First Amendment, and that this includes the freedom to read and listen to others' perspectives through books.

"We are committed to challenging censorship in any form as protected by these rights," the statement said.

The groups cited the Library Bill of Rights, adopted by the American Library Association, which says that even minors should have access to a diverse collection of books. The statement said library collections should be inclusive and should include books that are relevant to each member of a school.

Trained librarians and educators have policies and processes for addressing challenged materials, the groups said, which protect the interests of children and give legal protection to school districts.

"A parent has the right to determine what is best for their child but they do not have the right to determine what is best for any other child. As a result, when a book is challenged, it is entitled to due process for review, by an objective body that assesses its merits in their entirety," the statement from the groups says.

The Salt Lake Branch of the NAACP also issued a statement about the book removals in the Canyons District and said it supports the stance of the library associations.

President Jeanetta Williams said the NAACP is supportive of the process to review books when concerns are raised about age appropriateness, but said it is "extremely difficult to reconcile" that books being discussed are disproportionately "Black, brown and LGBTQ books and authors."

"We realize that each district has the responsibility through the professionalism of the library specialists and their curriculum department to review all books that are in the classroom and library, but we demand that reviews are done fairly, in accordance to district policy, and with a commitment to diverse opinions and voices," she said in a statement.

Gov. Spencer Cox also spoke out saying about the book removal this week, saying students of history should be wary about banning books.

"I'm not saying every book should be in every classroom," the governor said. "There are probably some books that shouldn't be in our schools. But let's be thoughtful about it. Let's take a step back, take a deep breath and make sure that we're not doing something we'll regret."